The New York Times has caught up to the story that seemed to have gripped New York yoga studios for a while: Whether those studios should have to collect the state’s 4.5% sales tax.
We note it because this story includes a terrific quotation from Eddie Stern, one that captures his compelling sense of humor:
“Agencies are suffering,’’ said J. Brown, the owner of Abhyasa Yoga in Brooklyn. “They think they can reinterpret statutes and apply them to yoga.’’
Mr. Brown was one of about 70 people at a meeting weeks ago in Manhattan of Yoga for New York, a statewide lobbying group. The attendees sat cross-legged, pressed their hands in front of their hearts and chanted to Ganesha.
“He is a remover of obstacles,’’ said Eddie Stern, the owner of Ashtanga Yoga New York. “Even obstacles like the Tax Department.’’
However jokingly expressed, the state’s Tax Department has indeed ceased to be an obstacle.
In April 2011, the department posted a tax bulletin listing yoga, along with Turkish baths and weight-loss centers, as an activity that was subject to a 4.5 percent sales tax. Some studio owners said that state auditors had told them they were responsible to pay back sales taxes.
But after months of discussion with yoga studio operators and others, the Tax Department posted guidance declaring that facilities in New York City offering instruction in “various yoga disciplines” were not subject to sales tax.
“We took into account that yoga is historically practiced for its spiritual and meditative benefits,” said Geoff Gloak, a spokesman for the department. Mr. Gloak acknowledged that the rules could be murky for businesses like yoga studios that have only relatively recently grown into a major industry.
Not all is 100% OK, though. There’s still an issue with the city’s building department. It involves a “physical culture establishment permit, which is required of businesses that the agency considers health clubs and that have facilities like pools, gymnasiums and showers.”
You see where the murkiness lies, right? Further upsetting things is the city’s labor department, which is questioning the status of yoga teachers: independent contractors or full-time employees?
And at the crux of it all is how the classic shoestring yoga studio, which — to toss around a few jugements — are perhaps more firmly rooted to the meditative and spiritual aspects to yoga than bigger chains, fit into the growing business side of yoga. Yes, lots of yoga studios are just scraping by, but they are part of a $6 billion a year industry.
If yoga’s a big business, well, free market rules begin to apply, right? And with them, government regulations on similar type businesses. And in that environment, the yoga studios that are better at business will be the ones to survive. (That’s true of any business, but especially a small business. Being good at business often is more important than being good at what your business is about — yoga, communications, massage, banking, social media, etc. In other words, the yogi who is really good at business probably will do better than the yogi who is a really good yoga teacher. Sad, perhaps, but true.)
And that’s why it pays to have images of Ganesh and Hanuman in your yoga studio.